The portion of Pinchas begins1 with G‑d’s statement to Moshe: “Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon the Priest, turned My wrath away from the Children of Israel when he displayed anger among them on My behalf….” Pinchas turned away G‑d’s wrath by killing Zimri, who was acting immorally.

Rashi2 explains that the verse traces Pinchas’ lineage to Aharon, the lover of peace,3 because the tribes were saying that Pinchas’ action stemmed from his grandfather (on his mother’s side) who fattened cattle to be slaughtered before idols. By disparaging Pinchas, the tribes were trying to salvage the honor of the Jewish people and Moshe, for it was only Pinchas who acted in this zealous manner.

They therefore said that Pinchas’s act was not motivated by true zealousness for the sake of G‑d, but happened because he was descended from someone who fattened calves solely for the purpose of slaughtering them.

The Torah therefore traces his lineage to Aharon, informing us that Pinchas’ innate tendencies echo those of his peace-loving grandfather Aharon; his killing of Zimri stemmed solely from anger and zeal on G‑d’s behalf.

There are a number of important lessons to learn from this. When one observes someone doing something good, then even if he thinks he has proof that the person has a self-serving reason, he should not minimize the other’s action.

Even if it is true that the person is acting for a selfish reason, there is still the law4 that “One should always occupy himself with Torah and mitzvos even if it is not for the purest of intentions, for this will eventually lead him to [perform them with] wholly pure intentions.”

Moreover, making light of a person’s good deeds may have a negative impact on him; he may cease the study of Torah or the performance of good deeds. It is thus better to merely encourage such an individual to act out of pure motives.

Most importantly, we can never truly know what lies in another’s heart. Although the tribes seemingly had ample proof that Pinchas’ behavior stemmed from something other than pure motives, the A-mighty — who “sees into the heart”5 — made it known that Pinchas was motivated entirely by his zealousness for G‑d.

There is yet another aspect. When one makes light of another, contending that the other is only acting well because of an ulterior motive, the critic may well be mistaken in thinking that his criticism stems from a holy instinct. The person might say to himself that since he is so humble, he cannot stand seeing another acting in a haughty manner. Thus when he sees an individual studying Torah with great impetus or performing a mitzvah in an exceedingly beautiful manner — acts which seem to him to verge on egotism — he is incapable of tolerating such behavior.

In fact, however, such critical attitudes can stem not from a sense of humility but from arrogance:

It is possible that what really bothers the critic is the fact that the other possesses a fine quality which he himself lacks. He is therefore jealous. If he were to be entirely honest with himself, he would learn from the other person’s behavior. But since his own haughtiness is combined with laziness, he tries to belittle the other’s behavior rather than emulating it.

The lesson is this: we should always judge another person favorably, and learn from his good deeds.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VIII, pp. 160-169.